A serving of canned cherry-pie filling contains 80 calories. The plate before me certainly holds more than a serving. I stare down at a paper plate covered in a heap of red gel studded with round fruit, buried under a cap of heavy whipped cream. There is no crust, no breaded flavor to offset the sugar overload.
This is supposed to be fun.
I step around piles of manure in the rodeo ring at the Loudoun County Fairgrounds on Thursday, nestled in the rolling pastures outside Leesburg, Virginia. Volunteers swirl whipped cream in the final preparations for a pie-eating contest. The first to a clean plate wins.
“The adults will now get to eat two pies,” the announcer calls out to the onlookers seated in the grandstand. “Two pies for the adults.”
I had already watched the first two age divisions peck, smash and lick their way to victory, and scrutinized various techniques.
“You’re not eating pie,” the announcer had needled the kids during the earlier contest. “You’re wearing pie.”
The pie-eating contest is a small element of the county fair, a brightly lit speck in the countryside, but a refuge from technological marvels and modern-day hustle.
“It’s kind of organic. It’s not so packaged,” said Jay Lugar, marketing director for the Virginia State Fair. “Forty years ago they’d come for the rides because you never had rides. Now it’s kind of switched.”
Organizers say fairs serve an important educational function.
“We feel quite fortunate in being able to maintain that strong agricultural presence,” said Maryland State Fair President Max Mosner. “Kids don’t learn where the milk comes from unless they’re from a rural area.”
Washington Area County Fairs:
Fairfax County Fair:
Howard County Fair:
Arlington County Fair:
Montgomery County Fair:
Prince William County Fair:
Maryland State Fair:
Prince George’s County:
Anne Arundel County Fair:
Frederick County Fair:
Virginia State Fair:
Whether it’s a chance to see the cows or a needed respite from the concrete, area fairs offer a nearby opportunity to escape from everyday city life.
County fairs and competitions aren’t new territory for me. I know my way around livestock barns and chainsaw exhibitions as well as I know my way down the lanes of a quarter-mile track. The local Farm Bureau building was the site of my monthly meetings as a member of the Happy Helpers 4-H Club for 11 years.
But I hadn’t ever entered a pie-eating contest, one of the quintessential aspects of any county fair. Few other situations grant a person the freedom to unabashedly plunge face-first into food.
The idea inspired advice from my peers at The Washingtonian. Eat a banquet the night before. Nibble on snacks throughout the day. Gulp water. Sip water. Don’t drink any water. Breakfast and lunch should be normal meals.
I am about to find out if their advice is worth anything.
Children cling to the tops of cattle gates that surround the rodeo ring and angle to catch a peek of their friends covered in pie.
I crank my head sideways for a balanced bite of whipped cream and filling as the announcer sets us loose. The plan is to snatch chunks from the pie filling and devour it by sections.
One bite in, and I can barely bring myself to swallow a mouthful of whole cherries. The concoction is thick with a texture closer to marshmallow cream. I’m conscious of the amount of junk filling my stomach and nose.
A woman next to me cleans two plates as I finish my first. Though the contest I was in was for the 19 and up crowd, the younger age groups seemed to eat their “pies” with more abandon.
“They don’t care about getting sick,” says organizer Laura Fletcher in the aftermath of red and white mess. “They see that $10 prize.”
The woman next to me is declared the victor, and I’m happy to surrender the win. The pie contest organizers assure me I’m “a close second.”
It’s time for funnel cake, anyway.